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Time is Running Out in This Exclusive Excerpt of ‘Evermore’

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Time is Running Out in This Exclusive Excerpt of ‘Evermore’

Time is Running Out in This Exclusive Excerpt of 'Evermore'

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Everless. If you haven’t read Everless, you should remedy that immediately! Like, right now. What are you still doing here? Go read it!

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about Evermore. It’s set in a world where time is essentially a prison, extracted from blood as a form of currency. And the ending… we still haven’t recovered. Jules is the Alchemist??? And OMG so much death!!! Fictional characters are honestly the reason why we have trust issues. Naturally, we NEED to know what happens in the sequel as soon as possible, and we figured you all would want to as well. Check out the first three chapters below to hold you until Evermore comes out on December 31st!

 

The Sorceress

Tonight, I will make the Alchemist’s blood—Jules Ember’s blood—into a weapon.

I stand in a room deep below the ballrooms and balconies of Shorehaven. A timelender hunches across from me, sweating as he mixes powders at his workbench. He’s the latest in a long line of timelenders I’ve commissioned to lure the Alchemist out of hiding. All have been inadequate so far; all have died for it. But something tells me tonight will be different.

The air prickles with danger. With promise.

The people of Sempera are so uncreative with their precious time, their blood-irons. When they don’t drink them like beasts, they fritter them away to make their flowers bloom, or feed them to their fires to make themselves warm in the winter.

But the right blood-iron could burn down the world.

When the timelender tips the vial of Jules Ember’s blood into his little cauldron, light flashes through the room—as if we’re not far underground, as if day has come early and all at once. The ash and grime billow around me before the boom knocks us both off our feet. For an instant, flight. I think of the world as a hide stretched taut across the frame of a war drum, the kind I remember from centuries ago. Someone’s just brought the mallet down.

Even as my back hits the floorboards, my blood sings with triumph. An image burns behind my eyelids: a landscape of flames, the outline of a decrepit town with a pathetic name: Crofton.

I laugh to myself as I stagger to my feet. The timelender is lying prone on the floor, knocked there by the impact, gasping like a fish. “So it is you,” he murmurs. My true name, Sorceress, dies on his lips.

Never mind that. Inside the bronze cauldron, giving off its own faint light, is a shifting, sparking liquid. No color and every color at the same time, the magic is hard to look at directly with these human eyes. The man dying at my feet has created it out of Sempera’s finest diamonds and only one year of the blood-iron sweet Jules Ember left behind at Everless.

I bring the small cauldron to my lips and drink the Alchemist’s time. Just a little.

I have plans for the rest.

Pain lances my throat.

I breathe, alive, grip the edge of the table as my weak body shudders. I wait for the time to coalesce into a thousand daggers like it did that night at Everless, the night I finally realized who Jules Ember was under her skin, in her heart. I wait for her time to fight its way out of me like something alive.

That doesn’t happen. Instead, power seeps into me.

Energy courses through the room, magic in every particle just waiting to be unlocked and set loose on the world, snarling like a pack of wild dogs.

I pour a few drops of the liquid into a bottle, dark green to hide its contents’ diamond quality.

Aboveground, I hand the bottle to the Everless boy Ivan Tenburn. He’s afraid of me now; he holds it like it will bite him. Good. I need him to be careful. I need our creation to make it to Crofton intact.

Where it will deliver the Alchemist to me.

“Make me a fire,” I whisper into Ivan’s ear.

 

TO THE CITIZENS OF SEMPERA

A NOTICE for the capture of Jules Ember of Crofton, murderer of the First Queen, the late Savior of Sempera, the Lady of Centuries; and of Lord Roan Gerling, beloved son of Lord Nicholas Gerling and Lady Verissa Gerling, devoted brother of Lord Liam Gerling.

A reward of five hundred years of blood-iron is offered for the murderess’s living capture and delivery to Queen Ina Gold’s soldiers.

 

1

When I wake, my hands are covered in blood.

It’s only a trick of the moonlight and shifting shadows. Still, I frantically scrub my palms against my damp cloak, as if such a simple gesture could wipe away the red that stains my memory.

I sit in a corner of my friend Amma’s shed right outside of Crofton, my teeth chattering more with fear than cold, as her aunt’s three chickens cluck softly at me from their pen. Spring rain taps against the roof. When I was a girl folded in Papa’s arms, the sound of rain was a lullaby—it sang of new life, of fledgling wheat that would soon be harvested, kneaded, then baked into bread on a blazing hearthstone. The rain lulled me to sleep, as soft and real as the voice of someone I love.

Now it’s a faint drum becoming louder with every gust of wind. The sound of doom approaching.

The shape of Crofton drew me in from the woods—the broken line of rooftops against the sky that I’ve seen so many times before. Our cottage is only ten minutes down the path, I realize, then there’s a pang of grief as I remember that it no longer belongs to Papa and me. I would trade all the splendor and luxury of Everless for one more evening by the fire with him. But even Everless is lost to me—my first real home, now forever forbidden.

I didn’t mean to stop after fleeing Everless, but when I caught sight of the familiar shed jutting from a recently plowed field, I couldn’t stop myself. My feet moved of their own accord. As if by ducking into this familiar darkness I could turn back time itself, weeks and months of it, and undo everything that’s happened.

Say good-bye to Amma, if I were lucky.

That was hours ago, in the dead of night. There are soldiers out searching for me. Jules Ember, the Queen’s killer. I’ve heard them at times, crashing through the undergrowth and clumsily breaking branches, always giving me plenty of time to seek shelter in a cave or up a tree. Now I’m here; now I’m safe—

Something snaps outside. It’s loud enough that I hear it over the sound of rain and low rumbles of thunder.

I press my eye against a crack in the old boards that make up the wall I’m leaning against, fearing some soldier or wandering bleeder has stumbled upon my hiding place. I’m not sure which would be worse. A bleeder roaming the woods would likely cut my throat, drink all my years for himself without pausing to glance at my face. But a soldier would throw me in chains and drag me to the palace in a prison carriage. It turns out not to matter. All I see outside are the trees as they sway with the wind, their branches bending into whipping, shadowy arms that seem to point to me, whispering—

Murderer! Alchemist!

I swallow. For a moment, I swear that I glimpse the face of the girl who hunted me in my childhood nightmares, outlined in a flash of lightning. Pale animal eyes that wear kindness like a mask. Hair dark as the night sky. Her white teeth bared in a grin.

When I was a child, Papa told me my dreams could never hurt me—but he lied. Two weeks ago, the girl tore out of my nightmares and stepped into the world.

Caro. The Sorceress. My ancient enemy.

I breathe in. Out. I close my eyelids, trying to calm my racing breath, listen to the rain make steady taps on the roof. I hug my knees to my chest, letting the sound fill the darkness around me—but it’s not enough to dispel the knot of anxiety gathering in my chest. In the woods, I was able to ignore my fear. Shove it aside and let my attention be taken up by the task at hand: walk, hunt, hide. Get to Ambergris, the dock city where a ship waits to take me away from the land of Sempera, at Liam Gerling’s arrangement.

But, now that I’m here, how could I leave without saying good-bye to Amma?

Every day after the sun rises, she comes here to collect eggs for her and her sister Alia’s breakfast. Soon she’ll discover me, and there’s nothing I can do but wait. Wait to see if my old friend will scream at the sight of me, if she’ll run for the soldiers who surely patrol Crofton at every hour of the day and night, hoping to drag me away.

Just as I think this, the door creaks open. I’ve been expecting it, but fear still rips through my body and my head snaps up.

Amma is silhouetted in the doorway, a blanket over her shoulders and a woven basket over her arm. She looks well, and joy flickers briefly through me at the sight of her red-flushed cheeks. I gave her the blood-irons that Liam Gerling sent me in secret after Papa died just outside the gates of Everless. I’d hoped that the heavy bag of coins would help her build a better life for herself and Alia.

My friend rubs a hand over her bleary eyes as she steps inside—then catches sight of me and freezes.

I’d meant to stand up, but I’m frozen too. I stare up at Amma, trying to arrange all the words flying around in my head, but she speaks first.

Jules?” she breathes.

“Amma.” My voice cracks on her name, unused to speech from my silent week spent in the woods between Crofton and the Gerling estate. I press a hand to the wall and use it to push myself unsteadily to my feet, but I don’t take a step toward her. Not yet. Not until I’m sure she won’t run from me, screaming.

Amma’s mouth opens, then closes in shock. Finally, she whispers, “Please tell me you didn’t do it.”

She doesn’t have to say what she means by it. Word of my crimes has spread to every corner of Sempera. That I seduced Roan Gerling while a servant at Everless and used him to gain access to the visiting Queen’s chambers. Then cut Roan’s throat and stabbed the Queen through the heart.

“I didn’t,” I say. My voice comes out hoarse, pleading. “I didn’t, Amma.”

Amma stays stone-still in the doorway, her eyes boring into mine, round and glistening. Then she takes a cautious step toward me, moving into a pool of light that bleeds through a hole in the roof. She’s trembling. “Then what happened? Who killed them?”

“Her name is Caro,” I say, my voice wavering a little, even though I’ve practiced the speech in my head. It’s hard to force out her name, like the word itself is a stone wedged in my throat. All of Sempera thinks me a murderer. Standing there, helpless and trembling in front of Amma, I realize that I need someone to believe me. I need Amma to believe me.

If my friend doesn’t see the same Jules she’s always known—doesn’t see me for who I am—I think I’ll shatter.

“Caro was the Queen’s lady-in-waiting,” I continue, fighting to keep my voice steady. “She killed the Queen and Roan and blamed me for it. Now everyone thinks I’m guilty.”

I almost say, Everyone except Liam Gerling, but I stop myself.

Amma blinks and then closes the shed door behind her. My heart skips a beat as her lantern throws flickering shadows over the shed walls.

“Why?” she whispers, her face pale. “Why would the Queen’s lady-in-waiting kill Roan?”

My eyes burn suddenly, fiercely. “I don’t know,” I lie, swallowing down the tears that threaten to spill over. “They say she has the ear of Lady Gold. Maybe Caro thinks she’ll be more powerful with Ina as queen.”

I desperately want this statement—this partial truth—to be enough. For the line between Amma’s brows to disappear, and for the tension in her shoulders to slide away. But as the crease and tension remain, I realize how foolish that hope is. Amma has always been able to tell when I’m lying, ever since we were girls and my lies were about things like spilled soup and broken dolls.

“They’re saying you’re a witch. That only a witch could kill someone as powerful as Sempera’s queen.” Amma’s voice is small.

My stomach sinks with dread at the idea of telling her the truth: I’m the ancient Alchemist, the wicked Alchemist, reborn. I brace myself, inhaling deeply. “Do you remember the stories I used to tell? About foxes and snakes?”

Amma’s eyes flicker. “I suppose so.”

More to buy myself time than anything else, I reach into my bag. Amma starts a little and tracks my movements with her eyes. I ignore the small stab of pain this gives me.

In slow, steady movements, I take out the leather-bound journal that I stole from the vault at Everless. The book that I remember from my childhood, left behind when Papa and I fled the Gerling estate, filled with stories and drawings that I first thought to be just the ramblings of a little girl. Until Papa died trying to retrieve it, in the hopes of keeping the information within safe—keeping me safe—from the Sorceress, my oldest enemy. It seems to warm my hands now, brimming with secret knowledge—and more than that, a link to the castle that holds so many of my memories within its walls.

You were right, Papa. I was in danger, I think sadly, holding the journal out in the space between Amma and me. He thought the Queen was the threat. But the real Sorceress was waiting, watching from the shadows all the while. I befriended her, just another servant girl. I revealed my secret to her before I even knew it myself.

Fox and snake. Sorceress and Alchemist.

Amma lifts her lantern to see the journal, and her mouth flattens. But she takes a cautious step forward and opens it with one hand, holding the lamp close with the other.

“Your stories,” she murmurs, turning a few pages. Then looks up at me. Concern and suspicion chase each other across that face that I know so well. “You wrote them down? What is this, Jules?”

“They aren’t just stories. They’re a key. A key to things I’ve forgotten.” Nervousness dries out my tongue. “The snake . . . that’s what I called myself. And the fox, that’s Caro.”

Amma’s eyes flick up to me. “The girl who killed the Queen.”

“We were friends a long time ago, before I met you. At least I thought we were friends.”

“You mean, when you and your papa lived at Everless?” Something shimmers in Amma’s eyes—the look of the little girl who would beg me for every scrap of detail I could remember about the Gerling estate, who would let tales of lords and ladies carry her away.

“Sort of.” I take a shuddering breath. “Amma, I learned something about myself when I returned to Everless. It’s going to sound mad when I tell you, but please just listen. And then after, I’ll leave. If you want me to.” But please let me stay, I add silently. I’ve lost so much in the past weeks—Papa, my home, my friends, even Everless, the place I both hate and love. I can’t lose Amma too.

Liam Gerling flits across my mind again, the complete belief in his eyes when he stood in an open field and told me I was the Alchemist. I wish he were beside me, if only to show Amma that I’m not mad. Not yet.

“Do you believe in the Sorceress?” I ask.

“Of course.” Amma’s answer comes without hesitation. I remember the wooden girl statue she keeps in her window, the leaves and berries of ice holly, the Sorceress’s sigil, carved above the doors. The same motifs decorate shrines all over Sempera. To Amma, to everyone, the Sorceress is a benevolent being, and the Alchemist the evil thief who stole her heart. Anger brushes a finger along my throat. Caro has had centuries to shape her stories, while the Alchemist—while I—have to start anew with each incarnation, shrouded in ignorance of what’s come before.

“The Sorceress is real,” I say. I close my eyes so I don’t have to see Amma’s reaction to what I say next. “I’ve met her.”

Amma gasps softly. “How can that be?” Her voice is awed, reverent. Her eyes are the widest I’ve ever seen them.

“Caro—Caro is the Sorceress.” The words sound strange out loud. “She disguised herself as a servant girl to the Queen, to be close to power without being noticed. She’s not as strong as she once was, so she has to hide behind the guise of a handmaiden.”

I shudder, remembering the words Caro screamed at me, right before killing Roan Gerling in front of my eyes. I want to be timeless again. . . . No fear of aging or death, without having to drink peasant blood like a damned wolf. Liam told me that when I stole Caro’s heart, I stole her immortality, breaking it up into twelve pieces—twelve lives. But still, the Sorceress lives. Even without her heart, she’s more powerful than anyone walking the earth. More powerful than me, though I don’t understand how or why.

“Jules . . .” Amma’s looking at me uncertainly, her head tilted, like this is one of the riddles we passed back and forth as children. “I don’t understand.” One of the chickens gives a soft, inquisitive-sounding coo. “How do you know this Caro is the Sorceress? And why would she kill Roan?”

“She told me.” Even though I knew these questions would come, they get harder and harder to answer. I feel the beginnings of tears sting my throat as a memory flashes: the Queen slipping from Caro’s control, falling to the floor like a puppet with cut strings. “She wanted to hurt me. She was trying to break my heart.”

“Why?”

My voice comes out in a soft, pleading whisper. “Because she thinks that’s how she’ll get her power back.”

What little color was left in Amma’s face drains slowly away. Her eyes dart to the journal and back to me. The old tales and her friend before her. I know the pieces are starting to come together. “But the stories—”

“The stories say that the Alchemist tricked the Sorceress.” I hear Liam’s voice in my mind as I think of the two stories, the truth and the legend, entwining over the centuries. Where they differ, where they intersect. “He”—most people think the first Alchemist was a he—“offered her twelve stones, saying they were pieces of the heart he had stolen, and she rejected it.”

Amma nods along to the familiar tale. “And she forced him to eat them instead.” Her eyes are wide in the dark. She’s released her clenched fists, and drawn a little closer to me. For a moment, I can almost pretend we are children again, trading stories as we huddle close to a fire, desperate to ward off the chill and gloom of winter.

“The stones were the Sorceress’s heart—her life, Amma, her time.” I whisper now. “And when the Alchemist swallowed them, it all flowed back into him. But instead of living on like the Sorceress, the time was broken up into pieces. The Alchemist would live for a while, then die, then be born again.” I stumble a little over the words. It’s a story I still don’t remember living, though I feel the truth of it.

“Jules, you’re not making any sense.” Amma lets out a strangled laugh, and I can tell she’s trying for her usual briskness. “Stop this. You can eat and rest, and tell me when you’re feeling better what’s going on.”

“No, Amma, listen.” I reach out for her without thinking. She flinches—my heart twists—and I drop my hand to the journal, take the reassuring weight of it in my hand. I take strength from the soft, aged leather cover, the stories that overflow from the inside. I’ve leafed through it many times while walking through the woods. At moments, it’s been the only thing convincing me that I am not mad. “I am the Alchemist.”

Tears brim in Amma’s eyes and overflow down her cheeks. They catch the faint morning light and call up tears to my own eyes. “Why are you telling me this?” Amma whispers.

It’s the first question that I didn’t see coming, and it makes my breath catch. I realize I’m holding the journal over my chest like a shield. I put it down, and it falls open where a rough drawing has filled the page: a fox lashing out at a rearing snake, claws and teeth and fangs.

“Do you believe me?” I ask, my voice shaking. It’s not what I meant to say, but it’s what comes out.

Another long silence passes, and Amma takes the journal into her hands and opens the cover. “I never thought you were a murderer,” she says softly, her eyes flitting up to meet mine almost shyly. “I knew you had no love for her, but Roan . . .”

His name breaks the dam on my tears, and they spill out silently. Amma inhales sharply, and she lurches half a step to embrace me before pulling back.

“I didn’t want any of this to happen. I never wanted—”

My words are cut off in a gasp as Amma crosses the floor and wraps her arms around me. For a moment I think I might break apart—but from relief now, the first happiness I’ve felt in what seems like an eternity. I lean into her, and she hugs me tight, not seeming to care that I’m coated in forest grime. Her scent is familiar, the scent of home, and for a long moment I do nothing but breathe it in.

“You’re my best friend, Jules,” she murmurs. “Of course I believe you.”

At these words, my tears flow stronger than ever. They fill my eyes and run down my cheeks, cutting through days’ worth of dirt. “Thank you, Amma.”

Eventually she pulls back, her face thoughtful. “So Caro’s the fox, and you’re the snake?”

Her voice—patient but skeptical, like she’s questioning one of Alia’s wild stories—makes me choke out a laugh. “So it seems.”

“My Jules, the Alchemist of legend.” Amma’s face grows more serious. She lays the journal carefully on a crate and drops her hands to hold mine. “You’ll have to forgive me if I take some time to understand.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“Even when the messengers from Everless came with the news, I didn’t believe it.” She looks down, her eyes going sad. “That’s why she killed Roan? To break your heart, since . . . it was hers to begin with?”

I nod around the lump in my throat. “But it didn’t work.” Even though I feel broken, I’m still alive, and I cling to that like a lifeline. Amma’s hands are warm around mine. “Maybe I didn’t really love him. Or just . . . not enough.”

“It’s not your fault, Jules,” she says. “Perhaps your heart is stronger than you think.”

I shrug, though deep in my gut I know it’s not true. Even now I feel fragile, like a blow in the right place would shatter me utterly. Amma takes a step back—I feel a pang of loss as her hands leave mine—and guides me by the elbow to a bale of straw, making me sit. She plops down next to me and takes the journal into her lap. Slowly, she flips through the pages.

“It says here . . .” Her eyes flit to me, her brow creasing. “It says here . . . Fox will hunt Snake, always and forever.”

“She always has.” I try to sound offhand, but inside, my stomach twists. “Eleven lives, and I think she’s killed me in all of them.”

Amma taps the page with her finger. “What are you going to do then?”

I can see the fear in her tight shoulders, but her voice is so matter-of-fact. It’s almost reassuring, like all I need to do is think things through, and I can survive this. “I’m on my way to Ambergris, the dock city,” I say hesitantly. “I’m leaving Sempera.” That’s why I needed to find you.

Amma’s lips tighten into a line. “Well, you know best, I suppose . . .” She sounds doubtful.

“You don’t agree?”

“It’s just . . .” She crosses her arms and uncrosses them again, a nervous habit that means she’s thinking. “No disrespect to your papa, but that’s what he did all these years, and it doesn’t seem to have worked.”

“I’ll come back soon.” I don’t know if it’s true, but I can’t bear the thought of the alternative. “When I’m strong enough to face her.”

“Seize the day, Jules, before it seizes you first.” Amma’s eyes are bright when she looks at me. I laugh; it’s one of her favorite expressions, though it has a dark significance. Live now to the fullest, because when you’re poor in Sempera, tomorrow may never come. “I suppose I’d better do my best to get you ready for that day. What do you need?”

I shake my head, thankful tears still in my eyes. She just gave me everything I needed and more, and I feel like her faith in me could fuel me all the way to Ambergris and onto Liam’s ship. But of course that’s not the case. “A little food, if you have some,” I say, smiling like a fool. “And maybe I could stay here today . . . ?”

“Of course,” Amma says, bending to gather the eggs. In the course of a few moments, she’s assumed the brisk efficiency that she’s always had, that’s allowed her to take care of her sister all alone. “The soldiers already came through this morning, so I’d think you could stay as long as you need.”

My chest aches with gratitude. “Thank you, Amma.”

“I’m due at the butcher’s in an hour, but I’ll be able to sneak out after the morning stampede at the market. I’ll come back with food as soon as I can. And maybe some soap and warm water, while I’m at it.” She grins at me. “You look like a forest fairy, with mud for clothes.”

The sound of my own laugh startles me. “Soap then, and I’ll do my best.”

Amma turns to look at me one last time before bustling out of the shed. Now that she’s started smiling, it’s like she can’t stop, the edges of her lips tugging ceaselessly up.

“I’ll be back before you know it.”

 

Despite the cramped shed and the company of the chickens, I sleep well throughout the day for the first time since I left Everless, made whole again by Amma’s presence and comforted by her talk. I don’t have nightmares of the Sorceress, a girl on a dark plain or running through the woods, chasing me or being chased by me. Instead, my dreams are filled with the more pleasant memories of Crofton: playing in pollen-soaked fields with Amma in the summers and sitting at the kitchen table with Papa, the proud smile that he doesn’t attempt to hide from me. In my dream, we are happy and content, warm, our little cottage redolent with the smoky smell of venison that I’ve brought home from a hunt, cooking over the fire.

Something is wrong though. Somewhere beyond the walls of our cottage, there is shouting, screaming. Papa tenses, the smile slipping from his pale face. The smell of smoke is too strong. There’s a strange, acrid edge to it.

When I wake up in the cramped dark of Amma’s shed, the smell is still there.

A feeling of unreality grips me as I sit up and look around. Amma’s chickens are squawking in panic. The far side of the shed is outlined in flickering orange light, glowing fingers of it reaching through the cracks in the planks. I scramble to my feet and snatch up my bag just as a broken line of fire reaches through and alights the hay scattered across the floor.

For a moment, I am seven years old again, seven and rooted to the ground as the forge at Everless burns down around me.

But this time, there is no Papa to protect me, to carry me away. There’s only me.

I don’t give myself time to think. Clutching my bag, I turn around and kick the wall behind me, once, twice, three times until the rotting wood gives way, then yank open the hen coop so the hens can scurry out behind me, vanishing into the woods.

But any worry over losing Amma’s chickens or burning down her shed vanishes as I turn around, following with my eyes the river of fire that has flowed into my hiding place.

Because Crofton is in flames.

 

 

2

Panic grips my heart. Smoke is everywhere.

In the near distance, fire blooms over the blunt edges of Crofton’s rooftops. I run across Amma’s grandfather’s fields toward the smoking heart of the town, heedless of how I stumble over the old, loose cobblestones and mounds of freshly tilled earth. I need to find Amma. A picture forms of the squat butcher’s shop where she separates meat from bone, the market stall where she and Alia spend their days.

All those people, all those flames, all that wood.

My lungs are raw, my limbs already aching, but I push on, leaping over the broken-down wall that separates Crofton proper from the outlying farms. I reach the main road, then race toward the huddle of buildings, vaguely noting the clusters of people flowing in the opposite direction. I could be recognized, but that seems like the least important thing in the world as I race into town. Orange light flickers across the sides of the pales houses, brilliant as earthbound lightning. Thick smoke blurs out the sky above.

Sorceress, help me find Amma, I think desperately, absurdly, a child’s panic seizing control of my limbs. But sorceress is not a blessing anymore. It’s a deadly curse.

Soon I’m forced to slow, heat searing my face, burning my eyes. All around me, the wooden buildings smoke. Down the road, the schoolhouse is already a heap of rubble. Smoldering debris clutters the streets, the remains of furniture and market stalls. I have to jump over burning pieces of this or that as I pick up a jog, looking around desperately for any sign of life. The road is narrow, the flames close, and my hair begins to curl with the heat. An odd smell hits my nose—I jerk my head up to see that only a few steps away, the timelender’s shop is ablaze. I swear I can hear blood-iron bubbling as it melts.

A memory hits me of a garden party at Everless, a lifetime ago. A fire in the middle of it, contained in a bronze holder but reaching outward, fed by blood-iron, by hours and days and years, so that the flames burned hot in winter. A new wave of panic crashes against my skin.

How long will this fire burn?

“Help!” I cry out, though I can’t see anyone who would hear me. “Amma!”

No human voice answers my shout, but the fire ripples suddenly, as if a breeze has swept through it, and sparks land on my sleeve. I yank my arm back—

And stop. There’s something strange about the fire, even stranger than if it were only feeding on blood-iron. The flames, twisting yellow and red, shrink and grow with a rhythm as steady as breathing—controlled, constant, alive.

A crash behind me tears me from my thoughts, and I spin around. A man’s just burst from a house some yards ahead. Sparks fly out the door behind him.

He sprints in my direction, the fire following him into the road, flowing from the building. It’s not spreading as fire should but flows in his footsteps like a living thing, licking at his heels, advancing down the street in small, wild leaps. As he nears, flames inches behind, I remember a pack of coyotes I saw once when I hunted in the woods—half a dozen of them chasing down a wounded deer, yipping and jumping with something like joy as they closed in.

“What are you doing? Run!” The man grabs my arm as he passes, pulling me down the road, back in the direction of Amma’s farm. The flames seem to fall back from the man when I’m beside him. I don’t let myself think about what that means.

“What happened?” I gasp as we run, my voice hoarse from smoke and terror.

“Tenburn—” the man shouts, but he’s cut short by a cough. With his other hand, he clutches something to his chest: a small copper statue of the Sorceress, meant to bring luck. He goes on. “Something unnatural; it won’t die. My wife ran for the Reades’ farm, the creek—” He squeezes the statue in his hand, a silent plea for aid.

Unnatural, I think, and then: Caro. This is her doing. It must be.

The Sorceress statue in the man’s grip is unburned, perfect. Mocking me.

I grind my heel into the dirt, attempt to rip my arm from his hold. “Let me go, please, I have to go back. My friend—”

“Larys!” A woman jogs down the road toward us. Even with the dark smudges on her cheeks, I recognize her: Susana, the local farrier, who would often visit our cottage when she needed my father’s blacksmithing knowledge. At first, her fearful eyes are fixed on Larys—but then her gaze falls to me, and I watch her face stretch into a mask of horror. She halts and stares, like I myself am made of flame.

“Snake,” she spits. Her expression is unmistakable—hatred. The man, Larys, drops my elbow and jumps back, his arms wrapped protectively around himself. As if I might pounce and take a bite out of him, given the chance.

Before I can think, the woman’s in front of me, her hand closing like a vise over my arm. “My brother is dead because of you. His home collapsed on him. You’ve brought this on us,” she hisses, trembling in terror or rage. She glances rapidly left to right. Looking for someone else to tell. “Murderer.”

And she shoves me backward, into a bed of flames.

I fling my arms out, but there’s nothing to grab hold of. My ankle catches on what remains of a wall, and I fall back into fire. The pain is blinding, all-consuming—and then it’s gone.

When my vision clears of its red haze, I see that the flames have retreated and re-formed into a ring that encircles me where I’m sprawled in the wreckage of a building. I can feel the heat from the flames, but the coal under me is cool. Larys and Susana stand in the street, gaping at me.

“Help!” Susana shouts suddenly. “Soldiers!”

“No, please—” I start, but the words die in my throat. My vision blurs with tears, making me feel like I’m in one of my dreams. I imagine the people I grew up with seeing me and screaming, Snake, witch, liar, how dare you show your face here.

You know me, I want to scream. I’m just Jules Ember. Pehr’s daughter. This is my home.

But there is no just about me anymore. Caro’s stories have spread through Sempera like a cloud of poison. I am the demon in a girl’s body who murdered the Queen and Roan Gerling, enemy of the Sorceress, the crown of Sempera itself. I don’t understand what Caro has wrought here, but I know that it is meant for me.

She will kill everyone in Sempera, if that’s what it takes to break me.

Amma. With the thought of her, it’s like the fire has jumped into my heart and ignited there.

I plant my hands in the coals and push to my feet, and Larys and Susana curse and turn tail like their worst nightmare is behind them. But I don’t care anymore. Just like the moment when I saw Roan fall into Papa’s hearth as a child, I don’t think. I can’t think. Something larger has taken hold of me, filling my chest, moving my limbs from the inside.

I turn and charge toward the flames, throwing myself deeper into Crofton as it burns.

Smoke coats my lungs like sand. My eyes burn with it, and it’s becoming hard to see. But on the street, fire parts and flows near my feet like river water around a stone. It doesn’t touch me as I pelt toward the center of town, toward the familiar narrow path that leads to Amma’s butcher’s shop. Maybe she ran out already and is safe outside the town, watching it crumble, fearing for me.

The creak and snap of burning wood fills the air around me. A clothesline on fire, its shirts and blankets transformed into blazing flags, falls in front of me, floating to the ground like leaves in autumn. Coughing and screaming Amma’s name, I turn onto the street where she spends so many of her days.

And stop short.

Most of the buildings have already been reduced to ashes. This must be where the fire started. And the street—Amma’s shop—is a smoking ruin, the tallest part of it rising just over the top of my head. The interior structure is exposed, the storage rooms open to the air, their jagged shapes shimmering faintly with embers.

A plume of smoke rises into the sky and, for a heartbeat, seems to take the shape of a slender girl. My delirious mind imposes features on the smoke: beautiful but with a sinister smile. Caro.

I hear her voice in my mind. I will break your heart, Jules.

For the longest moment, I can’t move, can’t think, can’t breathe. Caro couldn’t know. She couldn’t possibly know that Amma was my friend. Could she?

Then a fresh surge of adrenaline floods my limbs, and I’m moving forward—through the heat and the thick smoke that permeates everything, billowing up in gusts of wind, searing my throat and skin, stinging my nose and eyes. I crash my way through the rubble of the butcher’s shop, the snapped wooden beams and splintered workbenches, the charred remains of the room where I loitered for hours upon hours, exchanging gossip and stories with Amma. A curtain eaten away by flame, half of a broken teapot with its ceramic surface singed. No sign of people. Maybe Amma was able to escape.

Then a ceiling beam falls from its place with a heart-twisting crash. In the hole in the wall it leaves, I see something that makes my heart stop.

Amma sits slumped against a fallen beam, her eyes wide and unseeing.

“Amma,” I breathe.

I rush to her and drop to my knees, taking her gently by the shoulders. Her chest is still. There are no burn marks on her skin—but her side is smeared with blood. My eyes fly to a streak of deep purple hardly visible on her filthy red-and-black-smeared dress. The unmistakable color of mava dye, left behind by a royal soldier’s weapon, and—

The handle of a dagger jutting out of her back. Though the polished silver is smeared with blood, I recognize it immediately: it belongs to Ivan Tenburn, commander of the guards at Everless.

Caro has already started to make good on her promise.

Rage at Caro rushes up in me, and with it, power. I fling out my hands, grasping at the threads of time, asking it not just to stop but to unwind, turn back, just like I did to save Roan Gerling when we were children at Everless. Save Amma, beats a rhythm in my head.

Slowly, the smoke around me billows inward and shrinks toward the ground. The gray churns, swirling in ways unconnected to the breeze. In the distance, I think I see some of the flames flicker and die. The pool of blood seems to shrink, flow back into Amma.

But then a deep, sick sense of wrongness fills me, a soul-deep nausea that makes my knees go weak. My body shudders as the strength drains rapidly out of me, and before I even realize I’m sinking, I’m on my hands and knees in the rubble, heaving with sobs, ash-black tears dripping down my face.

And now, I do scream: in grief, in frustration, in rage.

The ruined walls of the butcher’s shop crash down, burying half of Amma’s body in twisted wreckage. Behind them, in the now-exposed alley, a dozen soldiers in deep-purple royal uniforms stand in formation. Their faces are covered in cloth masks.

“Seize her!” one shouts.

I drop my head as they close in, limp as a doll, the strength gone out of me. I barely notice something flash silver by my hand—a butcher knife glinting next to Amma’s loosened fist. I close my fingers around the handle and take it up my sleeve just before the masked soldiers descend.

They haul me from Crofton. The Alchemist of legend, bloody-handed and hollowed out with grief. My toes drag over the ground and leave trails in the dirty rubble. Everything swirls around me as if I’m in a dream, the soldiers’ words sounding like they’re coming from the other side of a pane of glass. The only thing I can glean for sure is that I am being taken to the palace, Shorehaven. To Caro.

A faint voice in my mind whispers, Fight them. If I tried to muster the magic in my veins, to summon the Alchemist, I might stop time long enough to slip their hold and run.

But I don’t. Because I know by the way they wrap chains around me—tight, tripled around my arms and waist as if I had the strength of ten people—that the soldiers are afraid of me. They don’t touch me, so they don’t find the knife. Their fear hushes my mind even as they toss me in a metal-walled carriage and close me in darkness. Amma’s death mask is seared onto the pitch-black canvas inside.

Caro took her from me, even if she didn’t wield the blade herself. She razed Crofton to the ground. She reduced my home to a pile of ash.

Now it is my turn to invade hers.

Seize the day, Amma whispers in my ear.

I will not fight. Not yet. Not until the soldiers take me to Shorehaven.

 

 

3

The carriage door has a small rectangular opening, subdivided by rusty iron bars. For the next three days, it becomes my window to the world. The soldiers cart me across Sempera—avoiding the towns, keeping to the woods or the plains. I imagine the mob that would descend on the prison carriage carrying the Queen’s murderer.

The soldiers shove food and water through the slot, but I scarcely eat. There’s no room for anything else in my body but anger and a low, constant dread. And a growing sense, as we go farther east, toward the rising sun, that something is aligning within me, as if the Alchemist buried inside me knows the way to the palace on the shore—and longs to be taken there.

After two sunrises, in the foggy morning light, the sliver of the outside world that I can see changes: the woods and plains give way to low, rolling hills, scattered with scrubs and sand. The roads get wider and smoother. Where our path converges with another, there are suddenly more covered carts heading in the same direction as we are, each brimming with crates of apples or bleating livestock. Even the air is different—laced with the scent of brine, heavy and buzzing with something that feels like power.

We are close to Shorehaven. To the Sorceress.

It burns my blood to think of my things—the leather-bound journal especially—bouncing along in the soldier’s bags. Though they keep their voices down, I sometimes hear the guards speaking through the wooden walls of the carriage.

“I don’t like this,” a female voice says at one point. “Bringing her to Shorehaven during the coronation. The palace will be crawling with silly nobles wanting to get a look at her—”

“We’re almost there,” a male voice cuts in. “One more day and she’s the Queen’s problem, out of our hands.” He chuckles darkly. “I need the blood-iron. My wife is expecting a little one any day now.”

Their voices wash over me until they stop making sense, the words carrying no more meaning than the rhythmic stamp of their footsteps. The hours stretch on. Whenever the company stops to let me out to relieve myself, a full half-dozen women soldiers trail my footsteps, their daggers and rifles out. Their wide eyes and trembling hands give me a faint, perverse satisfaction. They’re right to be afraid of me—they all are—even if it’s not for the reasons they think.

Unease blooms in me at the thought. Since when have I delighted in others’ fear?

On the third night after the fire in Crofton—after the death of my oldest friend—when the moonless dark is bleeding into dawn and I think I’m going to explode from the anger roiling under my skin, I hear it: the sound of waves breaking against cliffs. I pull myself up to the window, ignoring the pins and needles racing up my legs, and look out just as the carriage rolls over a narrow wooden bridge crossing two huddling cliffs.

The sea is at the bottom of a hundred-foot drop. Glorious and unending, the ocean stretches, black and calm in the distance, white and frothy near the shores. It makes my breath catch—I’d always felt that there was a cage around Sempera, walling us off from other lands that I’ve only read about in the pages of books. Here it is: all that water, trapping us here to eat each other alive.

From Liam’s map and the cliffs flanking the water in the distance, I know that this is a cove and not even the ocean proper. But it’s as close as I’ve ever come to the sea, at least in this life. I can’t help but stare—first at the water, and then, at the shape that looms at the end of the road. From a crown of rocks, Shorehaven, Sempera’s palace, rises up from the cliffs, outshining the moon.

The castle of pale stone is dripping with light. It looks strangely natural, beautiful in its asymmetry, as if it’s been pulled from the cliffs that surround it. The sight of it sends a fierce pain through my chest. I’ve never seen the palace before. Of course I haven’t. But when my eyes travel across its hundreds of windows lit up like a chandelier against the night sea, I realize that’s not quite right. I know the castle, know that if I draw nearer it will reveal itself to have strands of ore veining its marbled sides, along with coal and gold and rubies and sapphires so subtly woven into the stone that you scarcely notice until the sun sets or rises. Then, the castle appears to be afire.

The memory rises to the surface suddenly, like when a sudden familiar scent plunges me back into the memories of childhood. I have been here, to Shorehaven. Suffered here. Not as Jules—as the Alchemist.

The images, sounds, feelings barrel through me: Caro had captured me. Was keeping me prisoner in the castle dungeons. Then, as now, she tried to break me. I remember blades, fire, pain. I pull the collar of my shirt up over my face so the soldiers don’t hear the half gasp, half sob that I can’t hold in.

The smell of smoke from Crofton still clings to my clothes, even after days of travel. It anchors me to the moment, reminds me what I have left to do. Amma is dead; Roan is dead; Papa is dead; but there are still people living, people who Caro might cut down to get to me.

She’s the Queen’s problem, the soldier said. Ina’s face takes form in my mind as she was the last time I saw her, smiling and happy, before I found out the truth about Caro and the Queen. And about Ina—that we were born together to a woman named Naomi in a town called Briarsmoor, in the midst of fire and screaming. I learned she was my twin, just as everything fell to pieces. Ina must think— My sister must think me a murderer now.

Unless—would she believe me, as Amma did?

Together, could we destroy Caro, dismantle her invisible reign?

I take a deep breath, trying to stay clearheaded, to temper the rush of hope that cuts through my grief and anger.

As we get closer, a larger, main road comes into view, packed with carriages that crawl along like shiny black beetles. The procession is illuminated by oil lamps hanging on the end of the tall iron poles that line the road. These must be the nobles of Sempera, arriving for Ina’s coronation. Is Liam somewhere within those walls?

For a second, I see his face—his midnight-dark eyes, his lips parted as he breathes a word. Alchemist.

The name jolts me. Because even in my daydreams, that’s what he says. Not Jules. If neither of us had ever learned the truth, if I was just another farmer’s daughter from Crofton, would he have even learned my name?

I shove the thought away. It doesn’t matter. It can’t matter—not with Caro hunting everyone I care about. I conjure Ina’s face instead, intelligent eyes in a pale freckled face, framed by cropped dark hair, familiar to me before I knew why. She’s the one I need to find. Assuming I can escape the guards.

Rather than joining the glowing parade of carriages streaming in through the front gate, ours turns sharply along one of the narrower roads that spread from the main path like spokes on a wheel. I stand by the gated window, my fingers wrapped around the cool bars.

The palace is ringed on its land-facing side by a seamless, pearl-colored wall—deceptively low, but smooth and uniform as metal. Above, I can see golden light through glass, flowered balconies lit up with strings of lanterns. Below, enormous waves batter at the base of the cliffs, their spray almost reaching to the lowest of the windows that dot the palace’s side. The ocean water leaves the stone wet and shining.

I repeat what I need to do to keep myself calm as the palace grows outside. One way or another, prisoner or free, I need to find Ina. Stop Caro.

I touch the butcher knife still tucked into my sleeve, as if I could draw strength from it.

The small, dark shapes of guards pace along the top of the wall, most watching the main gates. Even above the sound of the waves, I can hear the laughter and joyous chorus of rich, fluted voices. To the left, the smooth palace wall slopes off with the ground, so that there’s nothing between the palace and the ocean but a sheer drop—a height of at least thirty or forty paces. Below, huge, sharp boulders poke treacherously up through the waves like the metal-grey teeth of a sea monster, jaw gaping open to swallow the palace whole.

Fear crashes over me as we pass through a narrow gate set into the northern wall. The gate shuts behind us with a groan, shutting out the sound of the waves. Quiet falls, broken only by swells of distant music and wind swishing through trees.

I think of Amma’s burned butcher’s shop, the forlorn shape of her body. Anger and grief surge through me, pushing down the fear as we roll into a moonlit garden.

The doors open, spilling moonlight over me as thick as blood. Leather-gloved hands reach in. I scramble out before the soldiers can take hold, swallowing a whimper when my legs cramp and tremble. I collapse into a heap on the cool grass. Beyond the wary soldiers surrounding me, the garden blooms with thickets of flowers and slender trees. I peer up, surveying the glittering spread of windows, hoping to find some clue of where Ina might be.

And then— “Hello, Jules,” someone says.

My scream freezes in my throat.

Caro stands deeper in the garden, still as a statue. Her face is in shadow, but I would know her anywhere. How she stands, the way her dark hair whips in the breeze. I want to back away, but it’s like my body has frozen, the air turned to ice in my lungs.

She makes a gesture, and the soldiers file away out the gate we came in, as quick and silent as mice trying to avoid capture. One hands her my bag before departing. She opens it and withdraws the journal, which she pinches between her fingers before flinging it to the grass. Anger blooms in me, but I remain still. Papa died for that journal.

“Jules,” she says again, her soft words carrying across the space between us, wrapping around me like she’s whispering in my ear. “It’s good to see you.” She steps forward, stopping just feet from me, and withdraws a long dagger from her belt. A shiver runs over my skin, which tenses, expecting a blow.

But Caro doesn’t strike. Worse—she smiles with a languid, luxurious movement that seems to stretch seconds into minutes, like a noble sipping blood-iron from a steaming teacup.

She offers me the knife, handle first, her fingers delicate on the blade.

Moonlight catches her face, so familiar from my brief days at Everless—and, somewhere deep in my mind, from centuries of engraved memories. She’s smiling as if we are schoolgirl friends reunited after a few days apart. Her teeth shine in the dark.

I rise to my feet as steadily as I can and pull Amma’s knife from my sleeve instead of taking the one she offers me. She shrugs and turns it around in her hands, her fingers closing lightly around the handle.

She’s not afraid of me.

Still, I brandish the blade between us, hoping Caro can’t see how my knife hand trembles. The knife isn’t what Caro should fear. I call out to the time in my blood, will it to respond, and then gasp in almost pain as it tears out of me—more time magic than I’ve ever wielded before, making the earth beneath my feet tremble.

And yet—nothing freezes. The air in the garden seems to shudder, but time doesn’t stop, doesn’t freeze. My blood shivers in my veins. Something is holding me back, preventing me from stopping or even slowing time.

Caro doesn’t react except to sigh, “Oh, Jules.”

“How are you doing that?” I grit out, furious.

Her laughter rises like bells in the night, mixing in with the faint melody from inside the palace that falls around us, steady as rain. Caro takes another step toward me, close enough that I can reach out and touch her. “You left a few year-coins behind at Everless. You shouldn’t be so careless with your blood.”

An involuntary shudder passes through me. I’d completely forgotten leaving the coins behind on that awful night she engineered an accusation of theft from the Gerling vault, and manipulated me into selling time for her. When I had tried to feed her my blood-iron, she couldn’t consume it; it re-formed and stuck in her throat. That was how she knew, finally, that I was the Alchemist and not Ina.

Caro seems to read the memory on my face. “I found a way to consume it, which has had interesting effects to say the least,” she says, a smile crawling across her face. “You consumed my whole heart, Jules. Surely you wouldn’t begrudge me a little of your—”

“Enough,” I growl. The knife handle is hard and cold and rough beneath my white-knuckled fingers, a reminder of what I’ve lost, why I’m here. In one heartbeat, I drop the attempt at time-bending and lash out at Caro with the knife, a wide swing.

Immediately I regret it and back away as Caro ducks, her own knife sweeping through the air. Not rough and scorched like Amma’s knife, but jeweled and gleaming and sickeningly sharp. “I thought you were above trying to fight me, Jules. You’ve failed in every life. What makes you think you can succeed now?”

Because Amma told me I was strong, I think wildly—but the truth of Caro’s words cut me, making me feel impossibly small next to the vaulting towers of Shorehaven. In front of me, Caro’s power radiates in wave. I try not to show my fear. “I stole your heart, didn’t I?”

I’m pleased to see her jaw clench in anger.

“And even diminished, I beat you easily,” she growls. “And when I break you, I will take what’s left of it back, even though you’ve wasted it on”—she pauses, eyes raised to the blue-dark sky as if she’s remembering—“eleven pathetic lives. I won’t kill you now, Jules. And you shouldn’t be so bold with me, considering you’ve only one life left.” She sneers. “Instead, I’ll hollow you out and make you my puppet, just like I did the poor late Queen. All of Sempera will see what I can do with time until I can break your heart for good. Then I’ll dispose of Ina, and Sempera will see what a queen worthy of her throne can do. What else could I bind to their blood, Alchemist?”

The words drop ice down my spine. Bind something else to blood? What could she mean—what else could be taken from us, from our veins? Fear makes me slow. When Caro lunges fiercely at me, I only barely dodge her blade.

“But I was hoping we could talk for a bit first,” she says conversationally. “I’ve missed you. And we oughtn’t disturb the coronation guests.”

“You killed my friend,” I hiss, a tide of fury rising inside me and pushing the words out. “You burned my home.”

“I had to bring you here, didn’t I? I couldn’t let you keep lurking in the shadows.” Caro scoffs, but her eyes gleam with something like hurt. Then the hurt is replaced with a beatific smile that lights up her face. “Were you there? Did you see it?”

“I saw it,” I retort, slashing out again with the knife. I try to recall the sparring lessons Roan passed on to me when we were children, but it just calls up a wave of rage and loss. Caro dodges my swing without breaking my gaze.

“We can do wonderful things together when we combine our powers, Jules.”

Her words burn inside me. I try to ignore them, to push them away—because what does it matter now what happened five centuries ago, facing her, knives clutched in both our hands? “Amma did nothing wrong,” I hiss. “You should have left her out of this. Everyone in Crofton.”

“They don’t matter.” Her voice is wild and joyful again. “They’re ants next to us, Jules. Everyone is.”

A combination of rage and horror makes my reply stick in my throat. I lunge forward at Caro again, raising the knife high.

She whirls away from me, her own knife a flash of silver in the air. “I know you better than anyone else,” she almost sings. “You’re just as impulsive as ever.”

As she speaks, she dances out of the way of all my blows, her movements quick and graceful and efficient. She doesn’t seem to be trying to hurt me, but I realize that we’re closer together now than before. Caro is luring me to her—just like she lured me here, I think bitterly, foolishly. A storm of frustration crystallizes into movement, and I lunge forward with a grunt—and trip to my knees when Caro glides out of my path.

“Ina cries for him every night,” she whispers, a malicious curl in her voice. “He wasn’t worth a day-iron, and yet she weeps over that unfaithful Gerling boy.”

The memory of Roan’s blood burns behind my eyes, the shape of Amma’s body crumpled in rubble. Papa too, and others, a sudden chorus of ghosts in my head. For a second, the grief feels bigger than me, like it’s going to burst through my skin. I spring forward, a wordless snarl escaping my lips—

And bury my knife in Caro’s side.

She doesn’t cry out, but gasps, as if I’ve slapped her. Blood spills out of the wound. Triumph and shock and disgust crash through me. I let go of the knife and fall back, my breath coming fast. The world spins around me, but one thing stays in focus: the crude handle of Amma’s butcher knife, protruding from the lacy fabric of Caro’s dress.

Caro still grips her own knife, but her hand falls to her side, useless and slack. It’s too dark to see much—but the blood shines like black oil in the moonlight, welling up around the blade. I can’t tear my eyes from it.

“Jules,” Caro whispers, touching a hand to the wound. Her smile is gone. Her voice is small and vulnerable and makes something twist painfully in my chest.

Then the Sorceress falls to her knees with a soft, pathetic thud.

I twitch, instinct telling me to go to her, to help her, but I steel myself. No, no, no. The clever handmaid I befriended at Everless was just an invention, a mask. Caro is the Sorceress. She killed Roan Gerling. She killed Amma. She razed Crofton to the ground. That’s not changed by her ragged breathing, the blood dripping over her fingers, and the pained curve of her mouth like a gash across her face.

Her face. Something in it is wrong . . . something in it is changing, subtly, in the light of the moon. I take a step closer. Lines are spreading over her chin, cheeks, forehead. Her eyes are sinking deeper into their sockets, becoming wreathed in violet shadows. Her skin is even paler than usual, becoming the color of parchment, then bone.

With a shock I realize that her black hair is turning silver, like the moonlight is a physical thing clinging to her and painting her braid, dripping down until the white sweeps over her shoulder. She lets out a keening moan and wraps her arms around herself.

Something makes me close the distance between us in two quick strides. Without knowing why, I drop my hand and press it to her chest, over her heart.

Or where her heart should be. Because there, at least, the tales are true.

Her skin is freezing through her dress, as if there is a lump of ice buried inside her, sending out, instead of a beat, waves of cold that immediately begin to numb my palm. Cold emanates through me, to my fingertips, which meet the skin of Caro’s chest, the shiver traveling up my arm until I swear I can feel a claw of ice trace the undersides of my ribs and slowly encircle my own heart. The chill is cold as death. I gasp, then breathe out a cloud of frost. It hangs in the air between us, fine as a veil.

Though I’ve heard the story of the Sorceress’s heart countless times, I feel it now. On my skin. In my bones. Inside my chest. I carry the Sorceress’s heart.

For a moment, my pulse pushes me closer to her, as if the heart imprisoned behind my ribs is vying to be back where it belongs.

“I remember this,” she says faintly, more to herself than to me. Her hand, cold as bone, closes over mine.

Horrified, I look into her face. It’s still morphing before my eyes, delicate lines fanning out from the corners of her eyes and mouth—fine against the furrows of pain carved into her brow, but growing deeper and deeper as I watch.

Then—

A violent tug at my core. I slam my eyes shut and hear the world remade around me: a single, quiet shout of noise. Light, even behind my closed eyelids.

And smell—wet cedar, incense smoke, tang of blood.

Even before I force my eyes open, I know I’m no longer on the palace grounds. I’m somewhere—somewhere else.

The floor under my knees is damp, hard. The moon has been swallowed too, replaced by a dim candle. Caro is in my arms, her mouth open in a scream. The sound is unbearable.

Except it’s not Caro’s scream—it’s mine. The candle, the walls around us, Caro’s form, all are frozen in time. I register that her dress is a filthy blue, not the midnight lace-furrowed silk that my knife tore through.

Then I’m reeling again. The next breath, I’m in the courtyards at Shorehaven once more.

Caro is in my arms, her eyes closed. But the blood that spilled over the fabric of her dress is retreating back into its wound, the gray shrinking from the black of her hair.

She stirs. Opens her eyes and looks up at me. Alive, and angry.

 

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